Spirituality Fair embraces the full spectrum of faith traditions

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Dec. 9, 2013
(L-r) Aaron Al Daniels, Rev. Gregory Perry and Debbie Phillips form a drum circle at the SMHA's annual Interfaith Spirituality Wellness Fair. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.
(L-r) Aaron Al Daniels, Rev. Gregory Perry and Debbie Phillips form a drum circle at the SMHA's annual Interfaith Spirituality Wellness Fair. Photos by Janice Steinhagen.

The rhythm of an impromptu drum circle, the trickle of water in a meditation fountain and the color of a Christmas tree adorned with origami peace doves set a calming presence for the seventh annual Interfaith Spirituality Wellness Fair at Southeastern Mental Health Authority’s Norwich campus. Local representatives of many faiths staffed tables laden with information about their own faith communities or spiritual traditions.

“We have a good turnout every year,” said Lydia Myers, a spiritual peer counselor from the Center for Hospice Care in Norwich, who was attending for the third time. “There are a lot more tables and a lot more people.” This year, 28 presenters represented a spectrum of faiths, agencies and belief systems, ranging from Mormon to Muslim to pagan and including meditation, social justice and recovery.

Jeff Montague, the coordinator of interfaith initiatives for SMHA, said that the event grew out of an initial interfaith event marking winter religious holidays, including Hanukah, Christmas and winter solstice.

As other faiths asked to be included, the observance grew, he said. The SMHA, he said, is a “recovery-oriented agency for those with mental health and addiction issues. It’s very important to us that we provide whole-person-centered treatment for body, mind and spirit.” The event not only helps clients connect with communities of their faith traditions, but it also serves to educate staff members “to be more sensitive to and supportive to the role spirituality can play” in the recovery process, he said.

And for the presenters, who chatted casually together throughout the day, “it’s a nice opportunity for all of us to network among ourselves,” said Montague.

SMHS vocational rehabilitation counselor Brian Dunphy offered information about Buddhism, a faith to which he was initially introduced in second grade at his Tai Kwan Do lessons. He said that he has embraced a more formal meditation practice in the past 15 years. There are several Buddhist communities, or sangha, in the eastern Connecticut region, he said.

Other tables offered information about Islam, the Assembly of God and the Russian Orthodox faith, among others. “There’s a great need for education in our country [about more obscure religious traditions]. That’s why we are here,” said Swaranjit Singh Khalsa of Norwich, representing the Sikh faith, which originated in India’s Punjab region. “We share a lot of things together, we just have different ways of approaching God.”

Valerie Smith, of Old Saybrook, represented the Baha’i faith, which originated in Persia (present-day Iran) in the 19th century and has a small but thriving local community. An adherent of the faith for four decades, Smith said that the nearest Baha’i house of worship is in Chicago, “but usually we meet in one another’s homes” for worship services. Baha’is believe in one god and in the unity of humankind and of religions, a theme echoed by Singh Khalsa.

“All religions are pretty much the same,” he said. “All religions teach good stuff: to strive to be as good as you can, to strive to follow your religion as well as you can. We are all human beings – that’s our first religion. The goal of our life is basically to be one with God.” While the individual practices and traditions may differ, he said, “it’s not your personal choice – God sends you.”

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